—by Garfield Hylton
Rap has traditionally been a genre where elder statesmen are thought of as relics. Young artists and fans looked at older emcees as roadblocks in the ever-changing landscape of rap. But 2018 has proved rappers in their mid-30s and early 40s can excel if they make great music.
Rick Ross delighted fans with last year’s Rather You Than Me. Royce Da 5’9″ has seen an incredible resurgence after 2017’s incredible Bar Exam 4, this year’s PRhyme 2, and the extremely personal Book of Ryan. Phonte’s No News Is Good News shows the older emcee’s skill at making mature music for a mature audience who still want to turn up, but need to get enough sleep for work in the morning.
Whether it’s JAY-Z, Freddie Gibbs, Skyzoo, Killer Mike, or many more, rappers with just as many years ahead of them as there are behind them are making some of the best music the genre offers.
Among that backdrop stands Pusha T and the zenith of his solo career, Daytona. Pusha, a 41-year-old native of Virginia Beach, has transformed into a solo artist not only living, but thriving, in today’s times where new albums fall from the sky like snowflakes in a New York winter. Daytona is the culmination of his seven years carving out a niche as the preeminent cocaine connoisseur.
Terrence Thornton’s longevity is remarkable considering the wobbly start to his solo career. As a Clipse member from 2002 to 2009, he was the unapologetic drug dealer as his brother generally focused on the downsides of the crack game. The dichotomy made sense. No Malice is six years older, an army veteran, and has the responsibility of a wife and children. Pusha bore no such burdens and his only concern was keeping up with his older brother.
Tides began turning in 2008 with the mixtape We Got It For Cheap Vol 3. The scars of the rap and drug game weighed heavy on Gene Thornton’s conscience. His studio presence lessened as his heart was no longer into recording music. Pusha took that opportunity to turn in one of his best performances, particularly on the “Re-Up Gang Intro” where he rapped, “Under my cuticles proof the pies that I sell / Guess life in jail’s but a manicure away / Well, I don’t feel like gettin’ my nails done today—yuchk!”
Still, in the early and late aughts, Pusha was part of a twosome or a foursome. It’s easy to write verses when there are people to bounce ideas off of and help carry a project. After No Malice’s departure, the younger brother Thornton could only rely on himself. And his first attempts were hardly impressive.
Pusha’s introduction as a solo artist came in 2011 with the lead single “My God” as a setup for his mixtape Fear of God. The single had the energy of a dope boy fresh off the stoop, ready to claim the streets as his own. Fear of God was a lean effort showcasing his mighty quips were still intact but it left much to be desired by the way of a complete representation of his vision. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time one would listen to his solo work and come away with that feeling.
Fear of God II released six months later and was essentially the same as his first mixtape with a handful of new songs. Two years would pass before Wrath of Caine released and struck even fewer notes than its predecessors.
It wasn’t until 2013’s My Name is My Name that things started to come together. The project was a good step in the right direction, even though King Push still hadn’t quite found the proper Pyrex bowl to perfectly mix street tales with great music. It did have some great moments though. “Numbers On the Boards”‘ sounded like a steady drip of morphine through the listener’s speakers. “Nosestalgia” was the album’s apex on which Pusha’s cocaine imagery locked perfectly with Kendrick Lamar’s storytelling acumen the way baking soda mixes well with another powdery substance.
Still, there was an obvious reach for women on “40 Acres” featuring The-Dream, and Push doing his best Mase impersonation on “Let Me Love You” with Kelly Rowland. It didn’t derail the album, but made one question whether he had the wherewithal to truly fulfill his potential. Pusha seemed destined to fall within a subset of rappers whose group work made them legends while their solo work shed light on their own limitations as emcees…and then came The Prelude.
King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude might very well be responsible for how Daytona turned out. Darkest Before Dawn was to serve as a holdover for the later released King Push, but it was easy for greedy listeners to spoil their dinner with this appetizer. Backed by Timbaland, Diddy, Q-Tip, Kanye West and Boi-1da, Pusha lyrically undressed songs, leaving them naked and bare for listeners. At every corner of the 42-minute run, he commanded tracks with the utmost arrest, stretching his pen the way dealers stretch “weight” in order to satisfy all customers.
Even the missteps, like the Kehlani-assisted “Retribution,” couldn’t slow down the avalanche of coke punchlines furiously rolled off his tongue. What fans heard was a neighborhood, err, pusher who’d finally found his element. The former Clipse member was brash, cocky, and confident; able to rap over a flipped Biggie sample on “Untouchable”; take shots at Drake on “Crutches, Crosses, Caskets”; and absolutely tear the Q-Tip-produced “F.I.F.A” to pieces. It was the Virginia native at his best and, at the time, it was difficult to see how he might one up this effort with a new album. Enter Daytona.
Daytona is Pusha in his purest form. If The Prelude was the first kilo to lay the foundation, Daytona is Pusha flooding the city with product. It was doubtful whether seven songs was the right choice but the opening sounds of “If You Know” clued everyone in on that he was more than capable of fulfilling the task.
The album featured no female-focused songs, nothing radio-friendly, and no reach for commercial recognition. Fans wanted coke raps and Pusha provided more than enough lines for listeners to snort. He was able to keep an intense focus on all the things that made him the emcee remembered from his halcyon days as a Clipse and Re-Up Gang member. Daytona is a return to form for Pusha T because, like those days in the past, he only needed to do his part without having to stretch to cover bases that didn’t always suit his abilities.
Daytona‘s release continues the streak of older emcees who find success making albums for their core audience. Music streaming services disrupted the industry and possibly sent record executives screaming for the hills, but it also opened the door for older rappers to continue their careers in a way that maybe wasn’t possible in previous times. And for that, fans of all ages should be grateful.